No need for nostalgia – Mancini's Azzurri are a team for the here and now

By Sports Desk June 11, 2021

It was hard to think of a way to top the spine-tingling gravitas of Andrea Bocelli performing Nessun Dorma on a balmy Rome evening.

The organisers of Euro 2020 clearly felt it best not to try not to compete, so sent the matchball for Italy's 3-0 win over Turkey out to the Stadio Olimpico pitch via a remote-control car.

The restricted 16,000-crowd cheered the presence of UEFA's questionable accessory – the sort of thing a "fun" uncle might stick under the tree at Christmas – but then they gave full-throated appreciation to everything. After a 12-month delay and unimaginable heartache in the wider world, Euro 2020 was here.

Especially during those dark early months of the coronavirus pandemic when sport stopped, we all took solace in nostalgia and re-runs of great deeds from the past. The 25th anniversary of Euro 96 resonates particularly loudly in England as Gareth Southgate's Three Lions prepare to start their campaign against Croatia on Sunday.

In Italy, and also in the wider world's romantic view of Italian football, Italia 90 still frames an era. Yes, they reached the 1994 World Cup final and won their fourth world title in 2006, but for supporters of a certain generation, the Azzurri are indelibly linked to that fondly remembered World Cup on home soil.

Italy won all five of their games at the Stadio Olimpico in the 1990 World Cup before suffering semi-final heartbreak against Argentina on Diego Maradona's Stadio San Paolo stomping ground in Naples.

This was the beginning of a period when the Italian game reigned supreme. Arrigo Sacchi's great Milan side were in their pomp and the cream of global talent made for the glamour and riches of Serie A.

Mancini's revolution

It is safe to say Roberto Mancini inherited a fairly different situation in 2018. Italy had failed to qualify for Russia 2018. Far from ruling the world, this was simply the end of the world for a proud footballing nation.

In the former Inter and Manchester City boss, though, they happened upon the ideal figure to lead a redemption tale. A lavishly gifted forward during his playing days at Sampdoria and Lazio, Mancini's international career was one of frustration and fallouts. He spent most of Italia 90 as an unused substitute, having had the misfortune of sharing an era with the masterful Roberto Baggio.

Although such echoes of the past will always sound when Italy play on the biggest stages, Mancini has propelled a team injected with youthful exuberance into the modern era, playing high-tempo, high-pressing football – all slickness and angles in possession.

They had to look for the most acute pockets during a first half of one-way traffic against a packed defence. Turkey, tipped by many as dark horses before the tournament, turned up as the stable doors.

 

By the interval it remained bolted, despite Italy managing 14 shots to their opponents' zero. Turkey striker Burak Yilmaz, the talismanic hero of Lille's Ligue 1 title success was reduced to seven touches in the opening 45 minutes and a comedic dive that brought something approaching a look of pity from Giorgio Chiellini.

Great centre-backs of previous Italian vintages have been the foundation stone, but Mancini's Azzurri are built on cute midfielders who treasure the ball. Jorginho (76 of 81 passes completed) was at his metronomic best as Nicolo Barella (56 passes in the Turkey half second only to Jorginho's 59) and Manuel Locatelli probed for openings.

They combined to establish a relentless supply line to Domenico Berardi and Lorenzo Insigne. Either side of striker Ciro Immobile, the two wide attackers chipped away at the red wall until it came crashing down just before the hour when fatigue took hold of Senol Gunes' painfully unambitious side – perhaps not the last time we will see such an approach in a tournament that rewards third-place finishers in the group stage.

Azzurri winging it

Left-back Umut Meras took a tired stumble when Berardi – whose five chances created were more than any other Italy player – ran at him again in the 53rd minute. The Sassuolo winger's uncompromising thump across the goalmouth thudded into Merih Demiral and in. OWNGOLAZO! It almost looked as silly as a ball on a remote-control car.

Immobile was the intended recipient of Berardi's work but Lazio's master poacher was not about to be denied in his house, snaffling the rebound from Leonardo Spinazzola's shot to score in a third consecutive Italy appearance. His first goal in a major tournament was one very much out of the Salvatore Schillaci handbook.

 

Of course, it would not be a vintage Italy performance without the number 10 coming to the party. Insigne collected Immobile's pass after a poor clearance from bedraggled Turkey goalkeeper Ugurcan Cakir to find a crisp finish and the goal his shimmering efforts deserved.

If a pre-match serenade from Bocelli laid it on thick, how about a last-ditch, fist-pumping tackle from an Italy centre-back? Naturally, Chiellini found one of those to thwart Yilmaz in stoppage time, revelling in his work and another clean sheet earned.

But Mancini's Azzurri do not need to linger on a celebrated past. This was an authoritative statement from a team for the here and now.

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